Rachel Irzyk and her pet Turtie smiling bright on her graduation day from Holyoke Community College in May 2020. Photo by Peter Irzyk.

Third-year University of Maine student Rachel Irzyk has tried to make the best of her first semester here by getting involved even amidst a global pandemic. As a transfer student, it was difficult to find her place as many students already had their friend groups established. However, Irzyk worked hard to get involved on campus and meet new people, whether it be via Zoom or in-person.

Irzyk recently graduated in spring of 2020 with her associate degree in biology from Holyoke Community College (HCC) in Massachusetts. During her time at HCC, Rachel was a Dean’s list student and a member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. Growing up in South Hadley, the next town over from HCC, Irzyk noted she never got the opportunity to broaden her horizons. Having to commute every day and never living on campus did not give her many opportunities to get involved. For these reasons, she transferred to UMaine to get experiences outside of her hometown and within the 200-plus clubs and organizations UMaine has to offer. 

“The clubs have helped me get out of my comfort zone and have made me try new things,” Irzyk said. “They have also helped me expand interests outside of my major and are the main reason why I chose to live on campus during a pandemic. I could have saved lots of money by staying home and doing classes entirely online, but I decided being involved with the campus community would benefit my experience of learning and the campus life here.”

Now living on campus at UMaine, Rachel is studying wildlife ecology and is a part of four different clubs. Currently, she is in the Blade Society, Wildlife Society, Black Bear Beekeeping and Ewe-Maine Icelandic Sheep Club. For both the Blade Society and Black Bear Beekeeping, Irzyk serves as their respective public relations officer, and manages both Instagram and Facebook accounts for both clubs. Next semester, she hopes to join at least three more clubs, including the Maine Animal Club. 

Once Irzyk has received her degree in wildlife ecology she plans to be a herpetologist, working with reptiles and amphibians. Due to her love for reptiles, Rachel rescued her pet turtle, Turtie, when she was 10 years old. Turtie is an 10-year-old eastern painted turtle who loves to bask under the warm light on his rock. 

In her spare time here on campus, Irzyk hangs out with her new friend group, watches lots of “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” and FaceTimes Turtie when she is feeling homesick. Irzyk is also a big fan of UMaine alumni Stephen King and his work, especially his novel “It.” She has visited many of the locations that served as inspiration for his novels around Bangor since she arrived here at the end of August. She has visited the Stephen King house, the Paul Bunyan statue, the Thomas Hill Standpipe, the corner of Jackson and Union Street where the sewer that inspired King to write the novel “It” is located, the Oriental Jade restaurant from the movie “It: Chapter Two” as well as Mount Hope cemetery, where “Pet Semetary” (1989) was filmed and where the gravestone that inspired King to write the novel “Carrie” is located. 

With the fall 2020 semester coming to an end soon, her plans for this winter are to do some research on finding an internship for next summer. Her dream internship opportunity would be working with puffins as an island researcher at the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. 

“As someone who wants to be a herpetologist, it’s silly that I want my first internship to be working with puffins,” Irzyk said. “Puffins are my all time favorite animal, and it would give me an experience to become more connected with the state of Maine, as well as being able to live on my own outside of a dorm and get a taste of an entirely new community.” 

Irzyk is thrilled to be moving closer and closer to her anticipated graduation date at UMaine, which will hopefully land in May 2022. In the meantime, before this semester ends, Rachel will take advantage of every opportunity she can get to be more involved on campus every day. Even though she is nervous to continue the remainder of the semester online at home, she will persevere and hopes to stay connected to the Maine community while anticipating her return in January.